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Harnessing the Forgetting Curve to Make Learning ‘Sticky’

This LEO Learning blog post looks at the Forgetting Curve, what it means for eLearning and how training professionals can get learners to retain more knowledge.

Remember those late nights of cramming for the big exam? Caffeine, flashcards, studying with groups, studying alone, reviewing notes over and over again—and with all that hard work and a little luck, you passed the exam.

Sad to say, it’s estimated that you forget 90 percent of what you learned within the first month—or even first week[1]! Some people may remember better than others, retaining up to half the information for three weeks, but the general trend for how we retain information is the same: for most of us, not very well.

What Is the Forgetting Curve?

Dr Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who pioneered the study of memory and is known for his writings on the Forgetting Curve. He was also the first person to describe the Learning Curve, which refers to how fast one learns new information—the sharpest increase occurs after the first try and then less and less new information is retained after each repetition.

Scientifically speaking, Ebbinghaus’ theories suggest that we learn—and forget—exponentially, hence the concepts of a Forgetting and a Learning Curve.

So how did Ebbinghaus ‘discover’ the Forgetting Curve? To perform experiments on mental processes, Ebbinghaus used items that would later be called “nonsense syllables.” A nonsense syllable is a consonant-vowel-consonant combination, where the consonant does not repeat and the syllable does not have recognized meaning—syllables like ‘dax’, ‘bok’ and ‘yat’ (for English). He would pull out a number of random syllables from a box, read out the syllables and attempt to recall them. According to Ebbinghaus, the level at which we retain information depends on a couple of things:

  • The strength of your memory
  • The amount of time that has passed since learning

For L&D professionals, the latter is of particular relevance and gives credence to the theory that regular, spaced-out sessions of learning improve knowledge retention. But let’s get back to Ebbinghaus.

Graphing his results, he developed a formula for how long items remain in our memory. The resulting graph is called Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. In a nutshell, his studies reveal that the sharpest decline in memory occurs in the first 20 minutes after hearing the information, and the decay is significant through the first hour that follows. The curve levels off after about one day.

Data from Egginghaus (1885), reproduced graph from Experimental Psychology (1954), p.730

But don’t be alarmed! It’s simply not true that all learners are doomed to forget everything in your carefully designed training program. Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power and understanding and acknowledging Ebbinghaus’ theories means we can take practical steps to combat the Forgetting Curve.

Strategies You Can Use to Improve Your Memory Retention

There are two primary factors that affect our level of retention for items in our long-term memory:

  1. Repetition
    Repetition is easy enough: the more frequently we repeat something, the more likely it is to stick. This is why school teachers tend to repeat their curriculum to make the learning stick. In eLearning, research has shown that reviewing at regular intervals does increase retention. That’s why all the reviewing and cramming we referred to earlier can provide dividends in the short term—but it’s likely you’ll forget everything you had to memorize immediately after.
  2. Quality of memory representation
    A second, more successful approach to long-term retention is to focus on the quality of the information represented and its meaning to you. The more meaningful connections you can make with the new information to things you already know, the better your memory retention over time.
    If you learn something important to you, and you can connect it with things you already know, your memory retention will be high. If you learn something that’s not important (or less important) to you, and you do not connect it with anything you already know, you will have poor retention and require regular repetition.

The Forgetting Curve: Tricks to Help Learners Retain Information

Make it relatable. Author Scott H Young refers to “relating” as holistic learning.[2] As he describes it: “Instead of trying to pound information into your brain with the hopes it will simply fall out when you need it, holistic learning is the process of weaving the knowledge you are learning into everything you already understand.”

Storytelling in learning is a great way to make that connection and get learners to retain the knowledge. Other tricks include:

Mnemonics – memory devices that help learners recall larger pieces of information. The best examples of mnemonics are acronyms, acrostics, chunking or imagery association.

Social collaboration – Learners should be able to ask questions freely, answer those of others by explaining what they know, and work together to find solutions. Whether they do this face-to-face or through web collaboration tools, getting answers is what matters most.

The lasting effect of Ebbinghaus’ work

Ebbinghaus himself published only three works but his theories’ effect on memory research was almost immediate. Although few works had been published on memory in the previous 200 years, Ebbinghaus’ works spurred memory research in the United States in the 1890s, with 32 papers published in 1894 alone. Noted psychologist William James called the memory studies “the single most brilliant investigation in the history of psychology.”[3]

If you found this blog post useful, you might also be interested in our ebook ‘Why Blended Learning Works (And Can Work For You!)’

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[1] Sid Savara, ‘The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve – And How To Overcome It’

[2] Scott Young, ‘Learn More, Study Less!’

[3] Acumen, ‘Herman Ebbinghaus’

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